The process was described to me before I walked onto the kill floor.
Jim Wood, owner of Palmetto Creek Farms, gave me the rundown. "They can't see anything. There's nothing to hear. I don't think they have any idea what's going on."
I was handed a long lab coat and a hairnet. I could feel my heart beating inside my chest. Please don't faint. Please don't faint, I repeated over and over in my head. For the first time in my life, I was about to see a mammal die.
Palmetto Creek is a natural-pork farm in Avon Park, in Central Florida. Back in 2001, Wood and his family began raising a few pigs to show at a county fair. One day, Wood was invited to a dinner where he sampled pork from Sam's Club as well as pork raised at the University of Florida's swine unit. Tasting the difference launched him on a mission to produce "the best pork you have ever had on your fork." Friends helped the family build barns, and the more they learned, the more natural they went. They evolved from a labor-intensive operation (injecting shots, cutting pigs' nails, assisting in piglet births) to a largely natural operation, where pigs just do their piggy thing: give birth alone, grow claws, and roam free.
In 2007, after a magazine wrote an article about the farm and its hormone-free, chemical-free pigs, chefs came calling. Today Palmetto Creek has about 500 pigs on 30 acres, and it supplies high-end restaurants including Market 17, Michy's, Michael's Genuine, and Pizzeria Oceano. Chris Miracolo, the chef at Max's Harvest, gave me Wood's number.
Many factory farms would be hesitant let a reporter witness their behind-the scenes operations — in fact, after animal-rights groups exposed cruel farming practices, several states, pressured by big agriculture, have instituted so-called "ag gag" laws that make it criminal to take photos on farms without the farm owner's consent; one such bill was introduced in Florida in 2011 but failed. Wood, however, told me to come on up for the once-a-week slaughter.
We — Wood, myself, a few workers, and a USDA inspector who witnesses every slaughter — entered the barn through a screen door. To my right, there were two pens with about ten pigs — the unfortunate victims of the day. I could feel my heart drop as a couple of them walked over to check me out.
Keith Faust, the farm and plant manager, began opening and closing the wooden fences to corral the animals into the slaughter area. A pig strolled out and made its way around to the "knock box" — a three-sided metal box that is placed against a wood wall and is just large enough for the pig to fit in. The door slid down behind him.
Keith quickly and carefully put his weapon, called a captive bolt stun gun, to the pig's head just above his eyes. The gun looks like a pistol or a drill, but instead of bullets, it has a heavy-duty bolt in its barrel. When the trigger is pulled, compressed air forces the bolt out at tremendous speed; then it springs back in. The force will knock livestock unconscious.
Boom! The pig quickly dropped to the rolling cart on the floor of the pen, its muscles spasming violently. The men slit its neck. Blood gushed out. Holy shit, I thought to myself, I cannot believe I just saw that. My nerves stood on end. Travis Gibson, another farm worker, rapidly lassoed the foot of the flailing animal. It was hoisted up and pulled to the next room. The pigs in the pen across the room paid no attention, ignorant to their impending demise.
Keith pulled a clipboard off the wall to check off some boxes. Now that I had witnessed my first kill, he explained the process in more detail. "As it's falling, I close its eye to check for eye movement. I look for rhythmic breathing and vocalization. If it blinks back, breathes, or makes any noise, the animal has not been stunned properly. If that happens, we have a backup gun already loaded."
Killing the animals, he said, "is my least favorite part of the job. If I never had to do this again, I certainly wouldn't miss it. I live on this farm. This is my life. The rest of these guys go home at the end of the day. I am with these pigs from the day they are born until the day they die. I don't like to see them die. You have to compartmentalize it."
I walked into the next room to see the rest of the process. Still worried I might pass out, I found a piece of wall and leaned against it for added support.
The hog was dunked in a scalding bath, then placed on a "dehairer," a large, medieval-looking device that flipped the pig around, steel cleats on rubber paddles removing its hair. Once the majority of the hair was removed, the workers scraped off the rest with knives. The body was then hoisted, hung, and singed with a torch to make sure no remnants of hair remained. It was then rinsed with 180-degree water. Sanitation complete, it was time for trimming and cleaning.
Wood and the inspector pointed out various body parts and explained the next steps in the process. First came "bunging" — cutting out the butthole. Then they slit the pig's belly and pulled out internal organs, being careful not to puncture any. Then they sawed the carcass in half and sprayed it with a vinegar peroxide mixture that would kill bacteria and hung it to dry. The next day, a butcher would come and cut it into familiar parts — pork loin, ribs, and chops.
My fears of fainting started to wane. Yes, it was tough to watch, but I was now beginning to understand the process that turned a pig into pork. Here, on this small farm, it takes about 30 minutes to clean the carcass from the moment it has been stunned. Today, it took longer due to the million questions I asked.
Hogs on the farm reach slaughter weight — 225 to 250 pounds — at eight to ten months. Palmetto Creek does not sell suckling pigs or roasters under 100 pounds. "We don't feel comfortable killing something that young," Wood said. The pigs live their entire lives outside, on the same farm, familiar with their surroundings until the moment they are stunned. The hogs are even run through the knock box several times throughout their lives so it's not frighteningly new to them the day they are put inside to be killed. According to Keith, "The only difference is, this time, the front door to the box is closed. They don't even have time to figure it out."
Juxtapose that to pigs raised on factory farms, where animals are usually stuck indoors with little room to move around. The lack of space prevents the hogs from burning calories, which helps them to reach slaughter weight in just six months, which means big farms can produce almost double the amount of pork in a year that a natural farm can. But lack of activity makes those pigs tense. Combine that with the strain of transportation — from breeding farm to feeding farm to pen to processing plant — and factory-farmed animals are stressed for the majority of their lives.
The hogs at Palmetto Creek Farms live well. They are treated with care and respect from the moment they are born to the minute they are slaughtered. Of course, when their meat comes to your plate, it will cost you. Pork chops from Palmetto Farms cost about $10 for a pound; at a regular grocery store, the rate is more like $4 a pound.
I assumed I would by traumatized by this experience, but I wasn't. It is not pleasant to watch anything die prematurely, but I knew these pigs were reared for the sole purpose of consumption. It's not a fact that anyone tries to hide. The process is open. So open that Jim Wood allowed a writer to document the procedure — "very rare for a slaughter," according to the USDA inspector. This is the way farming should be: transparent.